What the federal reclassification of marijuana could mean for nursing

The American Nurses Association has come out in support of the federal government's efforts to reconsider the drug classification for marijuana, the organization announced Jan. 18.

The drug is currently classified as a Schedule 1 substance, which is assigned to the most dangerous drugs like heroin, ecstasy and LSD. In 2022 the Biden administration began taking steps with the HHS to reevaluate how marijuana was classified. This led to an August 2023 recommendation from HHS Assistant Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, MD, for the Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule 3 substance, finding it poses less risk than other Schedule 1 substances. 

Among the most recent developments, the FDA released a 252-page review Jan. 12, along with the HHS' initial August letter supporting the agency's recommendation to reclassify marijuana after an in-depth analysis. The FDA stated that its findings are also supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

"After assessing all available preclinical, clinical, and epidemiological data, FDA recommends that marijuana be rescheduled from Schedule 1 into Schedule 3 of the [Controlled Substances Act]," the agency wrote in its Jan. 12 report. "Schedule 3 drugs are classified as having a potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances in schedules 1 and 2, a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence that may result from their use."

For many in nursing, this is a welcome move, and one that the ANA has advocated for in the past, noting in 2021 that marijuana's classification as a Schedule 1 drug "impede[s] the research necessary to evaluate and determine the therapeutic use of marijuana and related cannabinoids." 

"While the DEA has yet to act on this recommendation, the American Nurses Association recognizes this as an accomplishment in realizing the potential for marijuana in health care delivery," the ANA wrote in a Jan. 18 statement. "This marks the first time HHS has publicly acknowledged marijuana’s medical use."

Just four months ago, in September 2023, the ANA announced formal recognition of cannabis nursing as a specialty. 

Formal certification in the specialty is something the American Cannabis Nurses Association is currently working to develop scope and standards for. Once the basics are set, the ACNA will approach the American Nurses Credentialing Center to apply for its formal accreditation. The scope and standards are likely to be published in early 2024. 

If the DEA does reclassify marijuana, it will not only make research into the drug more feasible, but also ease parts of cannabis nurses' jobs. 

"We have really risked our careers by standing up for this and looking out for people that are trying to understand this more," Rachel Parmelee, MSN, RN, president of the ACNA told Becker's during a November interview. "We don't necessarily promote cannabis, just for patients to have access to safe information and safe access to it as a medical treatment."

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